AJFF Buzzes With World Premiere of John Goldschmidt’s “Dough” (**)

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Jerome Holder, Pauline Collins, Jonathan Pryce co-star in “Dough”

International Emmy Sir Peter Ustinov Television Scriptwriting Award-winner Jez Freedman began his script for “Dough” with co-writer Jonathan Benson in 2009. Fast forward five years to last night, when his finished product debuted in two venues for the soon-to-be largest Jewish film festival in the world. The two remaining screenings have long been sold out, the demand due largely in part to Director John Goldschmidt’s and leading actor Jonathan Pryce’s critically acclaimed backgrounds. But Freedman and Benson are to thank for the rest; their first film together serves a compelling synopsis that elicits (pardon the pun) high expectations.

Nat Dayan (Pryce) owns and operates the kosher bakery his family started in 1947. When a new landlord (Sam Cotton) threatens to squeeze him out of his property by raising the rent and supporting competitors, Nat’s falling profits suddenly look less like a slump and more like a crisis. When his assistant quits without warning, the crisis takes flight. He posts an employment ad, and a Muslim teen named Ayyash (played by Jerome Holder) applies to please his mother. But he has an ulterior motive—he needs a cover job for the money he makes selling marijuana. Nat hires him reluctantly, ignorant of the truth, and Ayyash quickly recognizes an opportunity to raise profits. His customers will buy more bread, bagels, and cakes if he augments the bakery’s goods with what they really want. But can Ayyash keep this a secret? Is he saving Nat’s livelihood or thwarting any chance they have at success?

Jerome Holder and Jonathan Pryce, co-stars of “Dough”

The opening montage is promising. Set to the first track from seasoned composer Lorne Balfe’s score, the first minutes follow Nat through his morning rituals. Pryce is compelling and endearing, and the bakery is inviting; the problem is how seldom you’re compelled to root for anyone else. Jerome Holder, active in television and film since 1999, overacts to the point of distraction. Ian Hart, who plays Ayyash’s drug-dealing boss, Victor, does the best he can with a sensationalized tough guy role. Even the sparkling performance delivered by Pauline Collins (Nat’s widowed, original landlord) is lost in the fray of a static screenplay and flat humor.

There were only two other scenes in addition to the first that were able to suspend my deflated enthusiasm. In one, Nat finds Ayyash kneeling and praying in the bakery’s back room one morning at sunrise. Goldschmidt contrasts Ayyash’s rituals with Nat’s in a beautiful fashion rich with reverence. Perhaps sixty minutes later, the (albeit apprehensive) tolerance Nat employs having learned Ayyash is Muslim turns to rage and disappointment once he learns Ayyash has been adding cannabis to the flour day after day. The confrontation is a strong but delicate snapshot of broken trust and misguided intentions; it’s the turning point in a socially and culturally surprising partnership. The film harbors multiple peaks in emotion and characterization, but they do not survive its overall lack of smooth editing, laugh-aloud jokes, and memorable music, which was most disappointing given Balfe’s varied and accomplished credits (“The Dark Knight,” “Inception,” and AJFF’s opening film “Above and Beyond,” to name a few). I look forward to any chance to observe growth from Freedman, Benson, and Holder, but the rare, shining moments in “Dough” rely on Goldschmidt, Pryce, and Collins alone.

2 out of 5 stars.

“Dough” screens twice more during the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival in sold out theaters on February 7th and 17th.

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